Poor cell service -- newer handset likely to have any impact?
October 20, 2014 8:15 PM   Subscribe

My well-worn Verizon iPhone 4 often doesn't ring for incoming calls when I'm inside my apartment. Is upgrading to a new phone likely to fix it, or do I need to change carriers?

About a year and a half ago I moved to a new city (West LA, if anyone's counting). I have a very old, well-worn iPhone 4 on Verizon. Often, my phone doesn't ring when I'm inside my apartment. I've been looking at the screen when I'm expecting someone to call, and seen three out of five "bars" (well, dots, but, you know). All the same, I'll get a "Voicemail from ___" notification a few minutes later. I can place calls, but people do complain about poor call quality.

This is getting to be a bit of a drag. Out and about, I usually receive calls OK. Sometimes, I receive calls OK in the apartment.

I'm ready to upgrade to a new phone, but the last thing I want to do is lock myself into a two-year contract with Yet More Crappy Service. Is a new phone (I'm looking at the iPhone 6) likely to perform better? If anything, it seems likely it would perform worse, since the newer LTE bands are higher frequency, which should penetrate obstacles worse, yea?). It looks like Wifi Calling may be coming to Verizon, but not for another 8+ months, which is a lot to bet on.

In the opposite camp, I have two elderly family members on a family plan I administer, and I'd just as soon not complicate things by trying to coordinate new devices for everybody while I'm on the far side of the country..
posted by Alterscape to Technology (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I will say that the TMobile WIFI calling does actually seem to work on my 5s, which is welcome. I haven't tried the 6, but never trusted any iPhone prior to the 6 on any network to deliver a call.
posted by wotsac at 8:24 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe, maybe not.

If the signal is decent but you're still not getting calls and sometimes have noise issues, you could be looking at interference from other electronic devices, too much load on towers, a bad protective case/cover, Do Not Disturb mode being on, an out-of-date roaming list (dial *228 option 2 to update this), or a variety of actual problems on the phone itself. A new phone would fix some of these, others it would not.

Verizon LTE bands are lower frequency than CDMA bands, so an LTE signal should penetrate walls and such better. However, their voice network is still CDMA (even for LTE phones), although Voice-over-LTE is supposed to roll out soon, I hear.

Do you know anyone with an iPhone 6 who you could invite over and check their reception?
posted by Woodroar at 10:03 PM on October 20, 2014

the antenna hardware on the iphones has gotten better with every version. my 5 works well in places my friends 4/4s'es on verizon didn't, and a manager at my works 6 can make calls in the concrete bunker back rooms where my 5 cant.

i've also had dumb seemingly software issues with ios that seem to make this happen, even when i'm outdoor and have 5 bars.

Note that lte, even VOLTE-capable devices will fall back to lower bands on older standards when the higher bands don't have good signal. Also, that LTE itself despite being higher frequency has much better capability of hammering through interference and low signal than 3g did(especially ye olde cdma2000/evdo), kinda like wireless N with shmancy signal shaping and antenna diversity stuff which the iphone is fully capable of with a good number of antennas.

I for instance, can get reliable LTE data in places where 3g just times out despite having "signal".

Does anyone you know have a verizon 6/6+ you could borrow for a couple hours to pop a sim in and test out? I guess you'd have to get the sim from the store, but still. (or i guess, heh, just play around with their phone at your house)

Another thing to note is that the 6/6+ support VOLTE, and are some of the only verizon devices to do so. The advantage i mentioned earlier of LTE making it places that 3g is flaky or fails seems to apply to calls on those phones. I don't have mine yet, so i haven't thoroughly tested this, but that manager seemed to really like how his was working.

It's also hard to find this quantified, but in peoples non-scientific testing of swapping phones around in the same location, the LTE-capable iphones(especially the 5s, there's not many posts like this about the 6 yet) seem to be better or equal to the best android phones at signal sensitivity. The other really good ones were either stuff like the HTC m8 which is big, or the galaxy notes which seem to do it well simply by being huge. I really wish some site like anandtech/anandbench had a huge database on this like you can find for a lot of other things...

Another thing to note is that towards the end of its life, my moms iphone 4(which outlived everyone else i knows iphone 4's, seeing as how me and basically everyone else i know got replacements mid cycle for the camera issues or other things) got REALLY flaky with this sort of thing. As did some of my other friends. Pocket moisture, moisture from rain, drops slightly dislodging cables, crap building up in those slightly dislodged connections, the case shifting slightly, and all kinds of other stuff seems to slowly wear down the integrity of some phones. Some people use the same phone for 4 years and it still basically works perfectly, other peoples phones get flaky. I tend to use my phones hard and well, they get flaky. My partners phones on the other hand often work 100% like new besides decreased battery capacity when it's upgrade time. It may now have crappier network performance than it did when new simply because of death by a thousand cuts type of wear. Phones experience a very unique kind of wear that's more specific to the individual user than even laptops, and that also effects each model differently. My 4s lasted a lot better than my 4 did, for instance.

I'm kinda rambling now though. My recommendations would be to get friends who are game and willing to help out, and test multiple phones on verizon at your house in the exact same location. I'd want to try stuff like the htc m8, s5, note 3, nexus 5, moto x, etc in addition to an iphone 6.
posted by emptythought at 11:04 PM on October 20, 2014

My experience mirrors emptythought's. I'm with AT&T, but the 4 performed very poorly compared to the 5 (and I'm assuming the 6). Regularly had dropped calls when reception was great, and also had situations where one caller could not hear anything from the other caller. The 5 in comparison has been rock-solid. Ignore what people say about the speed of LTE: the main benefit is that it works indoors better and it conserves battery life (since the antenna can be turned off faster).

You don't have to get an iPhone 6 (ugh, contracts): get a used iPhone 5, as they're being dumped on the market as people upgrade to the 6. If the iPhone 5 doesn't help things, you can turn around and sell it with a small loss (maybe $10-20 depending on your luck) and then switch carriers or whatnot.
posted by meowzilla at 11:16 PM on October 20, 2014

I wouldn't necessarily trust the number of bars on a phone as an indicator of how likely you are to get a call to go through. And as some others mentioned, unless you have a VoLTE capable phone (Verizon calls it Advanced Calling or HD Voice), your calls will be on CDMA. If you are willing to consider phones other than an iPhone, you might want to test drive a phone by Motorola, as I understand their phones tend to do pretty well when it comes to actual call reception. In addition to the Moto X and other Motorola branded phones, they also make the current line of Droid phones for Verizon, as well as the new Nexus 6, which Verizon will carry. At least the current Droid MAXX supports VoLTE (through a very recent system update). You might want to try some of them out and see if you get better call reception (and I think the return policy is at least 14 days, so you have a little time to test it).
posted by EatenByAGrue at 12:35 AM on October 21, 2014

The first thing to try is going in to get a new SIM card. When I've had these types of issues, that has fixed the problem for me. If that doesn't work, then move on to other options.

That said, at this point a 4 is getting pretty ancient and probably just can't handle the signal as well as any newer phone.
posted by catatethebird at 7:04 AM on October 21, 2014

+1 for wotsac's suggestion of trying to alleviate the problems by sending your calls via your home's wi-fi. You might be surprised at the wi-fi call's clarity. They approach corded landline for clarity. Ideally, the phone wi-fi calls app should switch to wi-fi calls automatically and without your input and attention to it.
posted by dlwr300 at 7:33 AM on October 21, 2014

The phone definitely does make a difference. In the olden days, my Nokias would get decently good reception in places where other people's phones on the same carrier showed no service. It's not about age, just the quality of the radio and antenna. That said, if the phone is showing a reasonable quality signal (and 3 bars is reasonable quality) and you're missing calls, the problem is most likely that the cell site serving your home is overloaded, not signal strength or quality.

To check what the signal strength really is, enable field test mode (which is apparently back in IOS7), open the dialer and dial *3001#12345#*. Further instructions can be found on this Reddit thread. If you're at -100 or below, the signal strength is quite low. If you're at -80 or better, signal strength is definitely not the issue.

If Verizon allows call forwarding, you can sign up for some VoIP service and use Bria to make and receive calls when at home. The idea being that you forward your calls to your VoIP number when you get home and stop forwarding when you leave.
posted by wierdo at 10:51 AM on October 21, 2014

Just had a chance to try this in my apartment -- thanks for the find, weirdo!

When I walked in, it was reading -106; a few minutes later I've seen as high as -80, and it seems to be chilling out at around -91, -92 at my desk. I just did the *228-2 code to update my PRL, and after I finished that call, was at -92 .. jumped to -82, now up to -106 steady.

I think I may just live in a dead zone for VZW.
posted by Alterscape at 6:52 PM on October 21, 2014

You're probably being forced onto more distant cell sites due to congestion on the ones closer by. If you prefer to stick with Verizon, you'll either want to find a phone that does better with low signal strength or get a repeater. Repeaters are expensive, but do have the advantage of helping out your friends when they are over. Plus you ought to see a modest improvement in battery life since the phone isn't having to scream at the top of its lungs to be heard by the network.

In your specific case, I'd probably go with the new phone since yours is getting long in the tooth, but is still worth something on eBay or Craigslist, so could slightly ease the pain of the cost of the new phone.
posted by wierdo at 11:07 PM on October 21, 2014

« Older I need to turn a phrase into a fabulous...   |   Do I meet my catfish? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.